Sunday, June 09, 2013

Waiting for inspiration, sirji!

The spot fixing scandal in the Indian Premier League of cricket is only the latest disgrace in the sickening, never ending saga of moral failure in our national life. We have got so used to blaming governance and the institutions of the law that we forget that our pathetic education system is also responsible. And yes, parents too are guilty, for the home is the crucible of the moral life. However, one inspiring teacher can make all the difference in moulding the values of young human beings. This is one of the findings of the 33-year-old Harvard economist, Raj Chetty, who recently won the prestigious Clarke Medal which is second only in status to the Nobel Prize.
Some of us were lucky to have had such a teacher when we were growing up. She incited and fed our curiosity and when we did wrong she gave a little nudge in the right direction. That course correction resulted in a new action, which when repeated became a habit, and the habit in time became our character. As we grew older we reaped the consequences of our character, which is another way of expressing the old idea of karma. The development of the intellect and moral character are related. Just as there is an order in nature and in the realm of numbers, so too is there a moral order that gives coherence to our lives. A good teacher is able to transmit this order, not by exhortation but by becoming a role model.
About 20% of India’s children today receive a decent education, but for the rest it is a depressing story. On the positive side, 97% of children do enter school. However, after a year only 43% can recognize letters. By class 5, half the children cannot read a class 2 textbook and three quarters cannot do simple division. By class 10, Indian children rank second last, aboveKyrgyzstan, in a test recently given by the Program for International Student Assessment in 74 countries. This is tragic! Our education establishment is, however, in denial and the Right to Education Act is totally silent on learning outcomes.
The weakest link in our appalling system is the tired and cynical teacher, who lost his spark decades ago if he ever had any. Too few teachers think of teaching as their dharma. How many wake up in the morning, look at the mirror and exclaim, “Today, I shall inspire one child in my class!” Yet not one of our political leaders has the guts to say bluntly what President Obama did on American television a few years ago: “Bad teachers should be fired”.
In this dismal scene, however, there are green shoots of hope. Teachers’ salaries have risen in recent years. This means that the right sort of persons will be attracted to the teaching profession. Technology also offers lots of possibilities. Children can now watch the world’s best teachers teach online, even on their mobile phone. The amazing ‘Teach for India’ programme, modelled after ‘Teach for America’, selects outstanding college graduates and offers them a chance to teach in poor schools where they soon become role models of change. Cities like Mumbai have begun to turn over failing municipal schools to NGOs who have quickly brought in the world’s best practices. Who knows, one day we may again produce legendary teachers, such as the one in Dharmapuri district in Tamilnadu, who bicycled 20 km in rain and shine to his village school for thirty years and produced a whole generation of great leaders.
Obviously, we cannot wait for an inspiring teacher to fall from heaven. Neither is there any point in complaining about corruption in high places. The moral foundation is laid at home and parents must take responsibility to teach moral reasoning to their kids. But parents must also get involved in the school. Studies show that where parents take an interest, the quality of the school improves. Even poor parents can make a difference. Although the Right to Education Act provides for parents’ involvement via school committees, this is not an easy task in a callous system of rapacious unions and uncaring bureaucrats. But it has to be done.